Rhidian Brook is an award-winning English novelist who has also written stories and screenplays. His new work, “The Aftermath,’’ is being developed as a feature film and apparently big things are expected of it. But there is a difference between a really good novel and one that shows promise as a basis for a movie.
Although the idea for “The Aftermath’’ is terrific and explores new literary territory — the English zone in Hamburg where Colonel Lewis Morgan has been charged with the rebuilding of this firestormed city in the wake of World War II — its execution leaves something to be desired. Although Morgan is a wonderful character and the novel’s moral compass, I was not convinced by some other characters or the way the story unfolds.
The setup is simple. Morgan and his family have been offered a palace belonging to Stefan Lubert as their home. Instead of turning Lubert out as Morgan is expected to do, the officer suggests he, his wife, Rachael and their son, Edmund, share the house with Lubert, his daughter, Freda, and their servants.
But, of course, the actual living together becomes complicated. Rachael arrives in Hamburg still grieving for the Morgan’s older son, Michael, who was killed in 1942 by a stray German bomb; she and the children had gone to west England, and Michael’s unexpected death has unhinged her, “poisoning her thoughts and causing her to think with a limp.” And Stefan has lost his wife, Claudia, who went missing in the firestorm.
Besides the two struggling families, Brook introduces us to assorted street children called “children of the rubble,” who have lost everything and are trying to survive, a Nazi resistance group trying to bring back their Germany, as well as a group of English military staff who are working for Morgan and whose wives have arrived with Rachael.
Brook sets all these strands in place against a well-drawn picture of devastated Hamburg. We are brought up short by the realization of how much these Germans have suffered and are still suffering, and how the fog of war still obscured not only what was right and wrong, but what was truth and lie. Elements here are clearly promising.
The first third of this book, however, is full of stilted prose. In addition to clinkers like “No amount of elocution lessons could disguise it,” or “he’d caught her callow,” or Edmund at 11 thinking about his tutor Herr Lubert as “saturnine,” there are passages like this one with Morgan thinking about Rachael:
“She’d once been lithe in times of changed circumstance, but here she seemed quite demotivated, found everything rebarbative. Including him. Michael was weighing her down more heavily than he’d anticipated and he had not only misjudged this but made matters worse with the wrong words, then with no words. . . . And still, two weeks on, they had not ‘had a moment.’ ”
Moreover, the narrative is predictable, hinging on a very likely love story that starts with a surprise meant to shock but is unconvincing because the characters have not been drawn with enough care to pull it off. Even though the writing becomes more assured in the book’s second half, the dénouement is rushed and contrived, its trajectory lurching in several directions without the strong narrative thread an ambitious novel like “The Aftermath’’ needs.
Still, there are some fine moments: when Freda realizes that some people died in the midst of making love, when Morgan negotiates with a colleague who has been stealing, when Lubert is truly surprised at the end, and all the scenes with the street children who are like a Greek chorus for this disturbing book. So we are left with a mixed bag, which may prove a more compelling movie than it did a novel.